Footballer Abdullah Shah discusses challenges, growth of football in Pakistan [Express Tribune]

Footballer Abdullah Shah discusses challenges, growth of football in Pakistan [Express Tribune]

by Sumbul Fatima

KARACHI: Abdullah Shah, a promising young centre-back from Pakistan, opened up about his journey in football in an exclusive interview with The Express Tribune.

Beginning his youth career with Mehran FC in 2013, Shah quickly caught the eye of selectors and earned a spot on Islamabad’s under-14 team for national youth championships.

His breakthrough came in 2022 when, at just 21 years old, he became the youngest Pakistani player to join a foreign league, signing with Dhivehi Sifainge Club in the Maldives’ second division.

Subsequently, he received a call-up to Pakistan’s senior national team in August 2022, culminating in his debut against Nepal later that year.

“After returning from Maldives, I received a call from the Pakistan football national team and made my debut against Nepal. Although I played well, we lost the match,” Shah said.

Beyond his football pursuits, Shah has also dabbled in futsal, notably participating in Neymar Jr’s 5 tournament in Brazil with Chitral Futsal Club Highlanders FC in 2017, where he had the honor of meeting Neymar himself.

“I went to the Neymar Junior League in Brazil, where I met Neymar. It was a big moment for me to meet Neymar and watch him play in his own tournament,” Shah said.

Currently playing for Abu Muslim in the Afghanistan Champions League, the young centre-back remains optimistic about his future with the national team, despite his current absence from the squad.

“I believe in Allah, and I trust that He is the best planner. Life has its ups and downs, and I’m working hard, hoping to return to the national team if God wills it. My family has been very supportive, as have my coaches and relatives. When Pakistan was banned, many boys left football due to financial and family pressures. It was a difficult time for me, and I questioned whether I should continue. However, my family encouraged me to persevere and not give up on the path I had chosen,” he said.

Highlighting the challenges faced by Pakistani football, Shah underscored the necessity of a robust domestic league system to sustain the sport’s growth and provide continuous opportunities for players.

“The main issue in Pakistan is the lack of a proper league. For the past three years, our coaches have emphasized that the national team cannot be formed through three-day try outs. We need consistent league competitions. Our players, like Easah Suliman and others, play in leagues abroad and return when needed. The absence of a league means fewer opportunities for players to stay in touch with the national team,” he said.

“In Afghanistan, I played 11 competitive matches in a month, which kept us in good form. Regular competition ensures that those performing well are naturally considered for the national team. There have been attempts to start a league in Pakistan, and we, as players, are supportive of any initiative. We need professional leagues and competitive matches weekly for three or four months,” he added.

In 2023, Pakistan’s men’s football team made history by advancing to the second round of the 2026 World Cup qualifiers after defeating Cambodia 1-0 in Islamabad.

However, they faced tough opponents like Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Jordan in the second round, losing all six matches and finishing last in Group G.

“International matches against teams like Saudi Arabia and Jordan showed a significant gap between our level and theirs. No one is playing competitive matches, just practicing. If you look at Afghanistan, despite their country’s situation, they have organized leagues, attracting players from various countries, including Pakistan.

“Pakistan needs to resolve its conflicts to prevent players from suffering due to a lack of matches and financial support. As players, we need leagues and competitive matches,” Shah said.

The 23-year-old voiced his belief in the potential of football in Pakistan, urging aspiring young athletes to persevere, manage their studies alongside their football careers, and seize opportunities as they arise.

“Before 2020, I might have said no to youngsters who wanted to play football in Pakistan, but the sport has grown a lot since then. The fanbase and crowd have increased significantly. With better facilities and sponsors, there is a lot of potential for youngsters to join if leagues happen and the national team remains stable without bans,” he said.

“There are moments when you feel like quitting football, especially when friends and peers leave the sport. However, they shouldn’t give up. It’s challenging, but they should manage their studies alongside football,” he concluded.

Published in The Express Tribune, 8 July 2024

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